We often don't realized just how blest we are until we remember the "Good Old Days!" I wrote the following tale back in 1992. As you shall see, communication was not as simple back then as it is now.
THE MYTH OF THE GLOBAL VILLAGE
I'LL SELL YOU A HOMOGENIZED MODEM
(If I like your face!)
I try hard not to be cynical. I really do. But every time I read an article that claims that a computer user can now exchange data with everyone else in the world, I tend to wonder which cloud the author's head is in. Perhaps their definition of the world is different than what "the rest of us" have to deal with. To be fair, maybe you can communicate to anyplace in the world if you are a Fortune Five Hundred company or you have mega-bucks to fling at the problem. However, the outfit I work for doesn't qualify on either count - and herein lies a tale of what trying to communicate with the rest of the world is really like.
From the corporate point of view our office is minuscule; the staff consists of five people total, and one of them is part time. Size not withstanding, we need to exchange data on a regular basis with a branch office in a third-world country. Now mind you, this country isn't nearly as third-world as some. In comparison with others it really has quite a few things going for it, including some brilliant technologists who have clout with the government. In spite of this, the first problem we ran into was the lack of communications infrastructure.
Back in the days when the branch office was established, the waiting list to get a telephone was about ten years unless you had a lot of "connections" (pun intended) and were willing to bribe a few people. Even if you were so fortunate as to get a phone, all international calls both outgoing and incoming, had to be placed through an operator with waits of up to three days before a connection could be established. Needless to say, the health of the local exchange was not high on the priority list when locations were being chosen. Obviously, if it couldn't happen face to face, all communication was going to occur by mail or cablegram. Over the next fifteen years however, things changed. Telephones became more readily available and moved down in price to where the average city dweller could at least dream of perhaps owning one some day. Even more encouraging was the assignment of "city codes" to the major population centers and the inauguration of direct-dial to the country from the U.S.
Suddenly, the health of the local exchange became important. Our branch office applied for a phone line only to find out that none were available. The exchange was at capacity. Due to factors that don't concern this article, the office could not be relocated so we had to wait two more years for another exchange to be built!
At last a telephone was obtained. Now, we thought, data communications should be fairly straight-forward. It shouldn't be too difficult for the branch office to establish an account with an E-Mail provider. The idea was that they could call a local number to check their mail-box and let the service provider worry about how the messages got transferred to and from the U.S. We were encouraged in this delusion by the "Electronic Messaging Directory and Buyer's Guide" put out by AT&T EasyLink Services, which listed a representative in the country of interest. We've used Easylink for years with satisfaction. This was going to be "duck soup." I duly sent a Telex to the representative requesting information on how our branch office could establish an account. I must say they were prompt. Within two days they replied in part:
"... 1. IT IS TECHNICALLY POSSIBLE FOR OUR ... BRANCH TO ACCESS THE EASYLINK SERVICES FROM A PERSONAL COMPUTER BY MEANS OF A MODEM BUT OUR ... BRANCH IS JUST A ONE PERSON BRANCH OPERATING FROM HER RESIDENCE FOR SOLICITING TLX TRAFFIC ONLY. SHE HAS A TELEPHONE WHICH IS NOT AN ISD TELEPHONE. SHE CAN DIAL WITHIN THE COUNTRY BUT CANNOT DIAL OUTSIDE THE COUNTRY, FOR WHICH EITHER THERE MUST BE AN INTERNATIONAL SELF DIALING TELEPHONE INSTALLED OR SHE HAS TO BOOK A CALL THROUGH AN OPERATOR. MOREOVER SHE WILL HAVE TO BE EQUIPPED WITH AN IBM PERSONAL COMPUTER, PLUS..."
"3. IF THE ... OFFICE HAS THE FACILITIES ENUMERATED AT 1. ABOVE IT WILL CERTAINLY BE ABLE TO EXCHANGE BINARY FILES WITH THE HEAD OFFICE IN THE USA ALTHOUGH THE SPEED OF TRANSMISSION WILL BE RESTRICTED DUE TO VERY POOR OUT DOOR PLANT AND PRESENCE OF SPURIOUS VOLTAGES AND SEVERE CROSS TALK ON TELEPHONE LINES..."
"4. ...RATES ARE AS FOLLOWS... 64 KBS DATA SERVICE... US DOLLARS 11040/- PER MONTH..."
"5. IT SHOULD TAKE APPROXIMATELY A MONTH OR SO TO HAVE EASYLINK ACCOUNT ESTABLISHED HERE. WE WILL HAVE TO APPLY FOR IT. WE WOULD NEED AT LEAST TWO PERSONS TO RUN THE OFFICE, THE PREMISES AND THE OPERATING WILL COST APPROXIMATELY US DOLLARS 500/- PER MONTH. THE INITIAL SETTING UP OF THE FURNITURE ETC. WILL COST AROUND US DOLLARS 2000/- ... THIS DOES NOT INCLUDE P.C. NOR MODEM AND ANY OTHER HARDWARE OR SOFTWARE
NEEDED WHICH MUST BE SENT FROM USA..."
Uh, thanks but no thanks! I'm trying to exchange data, not run a communications company. In any case I don't need two people complete with furniture to handle half an hour or so of traffic per week!
I'm not aware of any other E-Mail provider having a rep in the country. However, a friend suggested that we might be able to communicate via bulletin boards. Now this was an innovative approach that I hadn't thought of. The thought of dumping a file on a local board and having it show up a while later on the other side of the world is alluring. Who cares if it takes a couple of days for it to wend its way through cyberspace? It sure beats fifteen days or so in the mail. There was only one major snag - neither the friend nor I could find a single board anywhere in the nation that has a gateway, no matter how far removed, to the country in question! Yep, we really do live in a "global village" - if by village you mean parochial. By now you are probably wondering why we don't just dial up a computer in the branch office directly from the U.S. Well, this is exactly the approach we decided to pursue, which brings me to the second great impediment to world-wide communication for the little guy: ignorant and indifferent vendors.
To shove data over a dial-up line (and more than likely, a satellite link) to the country in question is not a trivial matter. Remember those "...spurious voltages and severe cross talk...?" This job is going to require some heavy-duty error correction as well as high speed and data compression to keep connect charges within reason.
After quite a bit of research (wading through reams of jargon) I selected THE modem. It is manufactured by one of the "biggies" whose name starts with M. Let's call it model Q. It so happens that M is a big enough "biggie" that you probably aren't going to find very many of them mail-order. Not to be deterred, I sent faxes to four large vendors who claimed that they carried the M line, requesting further information and prices. Of the four, how many responded? Only two. Of the two, how many were willing to quote me a price? Only one. And they were three thousand miles away. Not much chance of examining the manuals to make sure I hadn't overlooked something.
Not to be deterred, I betook myself to a major computer show. While browsing down an aisle my eye caught sight of a prominent banner from the M company hung in a large
booth. I made my way thither and made my desire known for modem Q, quantity two. Said the stuffed shirt in charge of the banner, "We sell communication solutions, we're really not interested in selling modems. Why don't you go talk to Tom across the aisle? He might be able to help you." Now, I could have sworn before I got to that booth that a modem was a communication solution. But, we all live and learn.
In due course of time, I made my way to Tom's booth. The conversation which ensued went something like this:
Me: "Hi, I was referred to you by Stuffed Shirt across the aisle."
Tom: "Oh, the King of Sleaze! What can I do for you?" (This, while giving me a look as if he didn't know if he could trust someone who had been sent to him by the King of Sleaze. I felt like asking him if I could trust someone recommended by the King of Sleaze, but my Mama taught me to be polite. Besides, I wanted some modems, not a fight.)
Me: "I'm trying to establish a data link between here and country ... and am interested in buying two model Q modems."
Tom: "Well, it's a matter of finding a modem that has been homologized for the country."
Me: "Enh? Homol... What does that mean?"
Tom: "I'm not really sure, but it's something the company has to do. Hey Dick,(this to a rep from a different company, not company M, that was sharing the booth) do you have any modems that have been homologized for ...?"
Dick: "Can't say that we do. I don't recall hearing about it. But, even if we do, you'll probably have to buy it from an overseas distributor."
Me: "But, I want to thoroughly test the system before I send it over to make sure that everything works. It's slightly difficult to troubleshoot a problem when you're twelve thousand miles away."
Dick: "Now that's a bit of a problem. I know of a case where a company needed a modem that was homologized for Greece. They had to buy it there and ship it back here to do their testing. You might be able to work a deal though, where the factory credits the foreign rep for the sale and ships you the modem direct."
Me: "What is this homogin... er homol... er this process? Does each country require a special version of the modem or something? I've already checked and the telephone people in ... don't really care what you hang on the phone lines as long as you tell them about it."
Dick: "I'm pretty fuzzy on it, but its something the manufacturer and the foreign country have to do together. That's what we have a foreign division for. I'll check with them to see if we've got something or not."
I left the booth after this slightly surreal conversation sans make, model numbers and price, speculating on the meaning of a new word. The cynic in me wondered whether it described the process of bribing the appropriate customs authorities in the destination country to let the product through without too high a tariff. Incidentally, neither Tom nor Dick has called me back with any information.
The next day I was favored with a conversation with the area distributor for company M (a quite decent chap as it turns out). He informed me that a model Q had been put on display at the show that morning at such and such a booth. I didn't inform him that I had already had an encounter with Stuffed Shirt at that booth. However, not to be deterred, I went back to the show. Sure enough, there sat model Q in the flesh. As I was ogling the sticker to see whether this beast was capable of working properly on 50 Hz power, Stuffed Shirt meandered over. I reminded him that he had previously sent me packing to Tom. Quoth he: "I knew that once you'd had a look at those jokers you'd be back. Can I tell you any tall tales about the model Q?"
Me: "I'd like to know the price."
Stuffed Shirt: "I don't do prices. That's Harry's department. Say Harry! Is the model Q on your price list?"
Harry looking offended: "I don't use a price list! All the prices are in my head."
Me: "Well, could you tell me what it is for the model Q?"
Harry: "This one? Hmmm... it looks like about $...., it is 2400 baud isn't it?"
Stuffed Shirt glancing in my direction for confirmation: "No, its supposed to be 9600."
Harry: "Oh, well in that case it's $.... (a price an even two hundred higher than what he'd said before) Have you seen the model H?" (made by a different company that as far as I know they don't carry)
Lest the reader take me to task for having the effrontery to bother these eminent personages with my trivialities, I should point out that the modem in question carries a list price of a cool nine hundred bucks per each. Now I don't know about where you work, but if I messed around with a potential source of that kind of change as these gentlemen messed around with me (I had the company checkbook in my hands while talking to them), the very least thing that would happen, is that my boss would coin some highly original maxims for my sole benefit.
At long last I got the modems. But, it wasn't from Stuffed Shirt, Tom, Dick or Harry. I've got enough troubles without those clowns on board. Seriously, one of the reasons communication is so difficult is that those who are supposed to have the solutions often know less than the customer and don't seem to give a rip anyway. Are they independently wealthy, or do they make their living by selling drugs instead of equipment?
There is a third impediment to international communication. The government controlled utility in the country where our branch office is located supplies power at a nominal 220 Volts, 50 Hertz. I use the word nominal advisedly. In reality the voltage varies anywhere from 195 to 230 and the frequency varies from 48 to 53 Hz. I know cuz I've measured it. Dealing with differences in voltage is easy - just use the appropriate transformer. Frequency is another matter altogether. It is not easily changed. So, what happens if you plug something designed for 60 Hz into a 50 Hz source? Due to the nature of A.C. power, at a given voltage and load there will be more of a current flow at 50 Hz than at 60. The result is that if the engineer hasn't used at least a ten percent "fudge" factor in designing the power transformer in your power supply, it's going to "blow." Even if it doesn't "blow" it will over-heat and will probably fail in time.
This is why I examined the sticker on the modem to see whether it mentioned 50 Hz. The majority of the computer equipment available in the U.S. is designed to run exclusively on 60 Hz power, and you can't be sure what is or isn't just by reading the spec sheets. I've learned by experience that you had better check the tag on the equipment itself. Furthermore, don't assume that just because one piece of gear is rated for 50 Hz, that everything else from that manufacturer will be. Some models are, and some ain't.
How bad is the problem? In the system that I assembled for the branch office we wished to include a laser printer in the thousand or so dollar range, and a cheap 9-pin dot-matrix. I found maybe three lasers, and exactly one dot-matrix that were rated for 50 Hz and that were in the price bracket that we had set! Only one of the lasers came close to having the features we were after.
And then, there is the matter of finding an appropriate uninterruptible power supply. Can't they make the wretched things with a switch or two so you can select the nominal input frequency and the desired output frequency? If I buy a unit designed for 50 Hz, how can I test the thing here in the U.S. office with the rest of the computer gear before I ship it over the water? How do I know it isn't "dead" right out of the box? Once it reaches the destination country it would be virtually impossible to get it back to the manufacturer while under warranty, and in the meantime, the system is without protection!
The skeptics among you no doubt have questions:
1) Why don't you just buy the stuff in the other country?
Answer: a) Much of it ain't available. b) What is available costs more than it does here. c) I have to go there to set it up and train the guys how to use it. I don't want to get there only to discover that an essential ten dollar part can't be had for love or money - this puppy works, and works right, before I climb on that plane!
2) Can't you special order gear that is configured for the power in the destination country?
Answer: Yes, provided you've got time and money and they don't force you to buy it via Greece! Street price for a 220 Volt modem Q is a hundred and ninety dollars higher plus a couple of weeks. As far as I know, the only difference is the transformer you plug into the wall.
The Taiwan PC clone makers have been vilified from one end of the trade press to the other, but I say God bless 'em! At least they have enough sense to use a 50/60 Hz transformer in their power supplies, and to provide a switch for 115 or 220 volt operation.
So why don't manufacturers add a few more turns of wire to their power transformers so they'll work elsewhere in the world? As far as I can tell there are two reasons:
1) Manufacturers are afraid that "gray marketeers" will undersell their local distributors with goods purchased in a different market. In other words, politics. Maybe it's about time somebody realized that it is in the manufacturer's best interest to sell as many machines as possible whether they are sold in the "gray" market or not. It's the local distributor, not the manufacturer who gets hurt by the "gray" market. In my opinion, if the local distributor can be drastically undersold, his prices are too high and he deserves to get hurt. Besides, if you must control distribution, isn't there a better way to do it than by crippling your equipment?
In all fairness there is a problem with warranty service. It's not right for the authorized dealer to get stuck with service charges on units he didn't sell. However, if the human race is clever enough to invent a computer, it must have the smarts somewhere to figure out a system that removes artificial trade barriers in an equitable manner.
2) Adding a few turns of wire and possibly a switch adds a few cents to the manufacturer's cost. But, if the Taiwan clone makers can do it, why can't others? Can it really be more expensive than maintaining different models for different regions of the world? Even if it does end up touching the profit margin a little, I think that they would be more than compensated by the good will it would generate from customers. For example, who likes being forced to change their computer gear because they got transferred overseas?
So there it is. I happen to moonlight as a computer consultant. If it's been difficult for me to solve what should be a routine problem, I shudder to think what those who do not have my skills and resources must go through. We've come a long way to be sure, but it's still a long, long way to Tipperary.
Note: Since the days described in this article, the Internet has changed everything. It is the rare person in the third-world country mentioned who doesn't have access to E-mail and social media. We no longer have to worry about the quality of land-lines or the capacity of the local telephone exchanges. The joke going around is that the first thing people do when a baby is born is put a mobile phone in its hand. There's some truth to the joke. And most of those phones are smart-phones. Now, instead of having to book a call through an operator, people - even in the back of beyond - can phone me directly. Instead of wondering whether the line will be clear enough to hear the person on the other end, assuming I can get a connection at all, I routinely use video conferencing. Instead of waiting weeks for the postal service to deliver crucial data (assuming they didn't lose it or it didn't get hung up in customs) we can easily download or upload it in seconds. When someone starts romanticizing the past, I just smile.